TWO brothers who are pupils at St Anthony’s National School at Ballinlough are mini-grandmasters of local chess.
Before lockdown, in February, Cillian, aged 11, and nine-year-old Eddie Ross won in their respective age groups at the Cork South Junior Chess Championships held at Blackrock GAA Club.
Cillian beat 62 competitors while Eddie succeeded against 24 players.
“What were the chances of that?” asks chess coach, Richard Pardi, a retired primary school teacher from Togher Boys NS, who has been teaching chess there for a number of years.
“We’re certainly looking at a lot of talent from these brothers. “
The boys only started playing chess with Richard in September, 2019. They had started playing the game with their father, Steve, a New Zealander.
The family, which includes three other children and their mother, Aoife, lived in New Zealand for a number of years before returning to Cork in 2018.
“The brothers are remarkably quick,” says Mr Pardi. During lockdown, we held an online chess tournament which lasted for eight days. Either Eddie or Cillian won it each day apart from one day.”
The advantage of chess at present is that you can play it at home and online.
Richard, who has been coaching young chess players in Cork for more than 30 years, says he doesn’t really know what skills are required to be good at it.
“I would think it’s very visually-related. It might even be linked to the visual side of mathematics as in geometry. I’ve taught kids chess who were inattentive when it came to the blackboard or the whiteboard. But when I put up the chess demonstration board, they responded to it immediately.
“I think chess is very good for concentration. The chess coaching sessions that I do after school are a kind of social thing too. The pupils have had a long day and don’t want to be listening to a teacher. I have to limit the amount of time I spend at the demonstration board. I mainly let them play.
“When they’re playing, they chat and concentrate as well.
“There’s a long established ethos of having respect for one’s opponent in chess. Civility is important though ultimately, the decisive moves in chess are as tough and demanding as putting for a major championship in golf or kicking those decisive test penalties in rugby.”
The European Parliament has recommended playing chess in schools.
“Spain and Italy introduced chess to the school curriculum. It’s great for social skills.”
Richard points out that we are constantly hearing about kids having short attention spans.
“But when they’re playing chess, they don’t notice 40 minutes going by. It may help them to concentrate on school subjects. It doesn’t hurt anyway!”
The chess scene in Cork “is lively, or it was pre-Covid,” he adds.
“A new committee of young teachers has come on board and has established an organisation called Ficheall (the Irish word for chess.) Around 40 or 50 schools competed last year in competitions.
“The city is divided into sections for chess. Cork South is the area I’m involved in, stretching from Beaumont to the west and including Greenmount, St Joseph’s, St Anthony’s and Crab Lane.”
The ethos of Ficheall “is participation as much as competition,” adds Richard.
“Kids usually start chess in second or third class when they’re seven or eight. If you’re going to start kids younger, they’d need to play more than one day a week.”
Richard says that there wouldn’t be any inter schools chess in Cork, at either primary or secondary school level, if it wasn’t for the dedication of chess coach, Joe Moroney.
Anybody can play chess, adds Richard.
“Even the kids who would be going to learning support all know how to play a game of chess after a few months. It depends on the level. It is seen as a nerd’s pursuit or an intellectual pursuit, or at least that’s how it is seen in this part of the world.
“In Eastern Europe and Russia, even down to Serbia, nearly all kids can play chess. At the higher level of the game are the international masters.
“There’s a serious amount of study involved in being a full-time professional chess player. Players are past their best by their late twenties or early thirties. The best players in the world have got younger and younger.”
Richard compares chess to outdoor games.
“Anybody who has the use of their limbs can play soccer at some level. It might be very poor. But then you’ve got the Real Madrids or the Barcelonas and it’s at a completely different level. It’s the same with chess.”
The board game is “very good for kids who are not athletic,” says Richard.
“On the other hand, when I was teaching in Togher where there was a culture of chess, I had so many kids who were in football, hurling and soccer teams. I’ve lost count of the amount of good senior hurlers and footballers who play chess.”
Meanwhile, Cillian Ross says he likes chess “because it’s a fun game. Sometimes, you get to play with your friends. I sometimes play with Eddie. During lockdown, we played at home a lot.”
Chess requires players to be good at strategy, adds Cillian. He says it also helps to be clever.
Would he like to be a professional chess player?
“I don’t know what I’m going to work at. I don’t want to spend my life playing chess. I want to do other things.”
Eddie, like Cillian, is very active. The brothers play cricket, soccer, tennis and basketball. Eddie would settle for being a professional chess player “but only if I can’t be a professional cricket player or soccer player.”